TO MOST ROCK GUITARISTS, THE
whole-tone scale remains an enigma—a perfectly
symmetrical pattern of pitches that
is simple to visualize on the fretboard, yet
tricky to use on the bandstand. That pattern—
which evenly slices the octave into six
whole-steps—may seem perfectly uniform
to the eyes, but can sound alien to the ears.
If you’ve never played the whole-tone
scale, you’ll find generating it is as easy as
choosing a string and playing every other
note. Do this, and it should be obvious
that there exist exactly two whole-tone
scales: one on the even frets, the other on
the odd ones, as shown in Ex. 1. The first
pattern hits one half of the notes in Western
music; the second hits the other half.
It is the whole-tone sound that remains
open to interpretation. Even while complete
grid fingerings for the scale are simple
to discern (Ex. 2), the dreamy harmonies
delivered by them can be difficult to employ.
Perhaps we need to call in an expert to help
us manage this mysterious melodic material.
Enter Sweden’s versatile jazz export,
“The whole-tone scale is typically played
over dominant 7 chords,” says Oberg to a
roomful of students during one of his regular
counseling sessions at Musicians Institute.
He’s referring to altered lines such as
Ex. 3, which uses the whole-tone scale to
resolve from A7#5 to Dm.
“What I want to show you, though, is a
cool way to use the scale over minor chords,”
says Oberg. “For instance, let’s vamp on
a Cm groove. With Cm as our background
chord, we’re going to start the scale one
fret below the root [Ex. 4].”
Experiment with this approach, noticing
that the scale skips the root (C)—we
can leave the tonic to the bass player—
and makes things interesting by hitting
the major 7 (B) and the minor 3 (Eb) of
C, which projects an intriguing “minor/
“It’s very cool for getting so-called outside
sounds over a minor vamp, because there
are all these useful structures you can pull
out of the scale,” says Oberg. He’s talking
about shapes such as the augmented
Eb-G-B triad triplet that opens Ex. 5. This
cluster gets shifted up a whole-step with
each new beat. “You can even move it to the
next string set [beat four of bar 1]. And, of
course, find other shapes and move them
around as well [Ex. 6].”
Once you have some whole-tone structures
under your fingers and can bounce
them around the fretboard in whole-steps,
be sure to “find ways to connect the shapes
with chromatic passing tones,” says Oberg.
“And, last but not least, be sure you can play
a complete augmented arpeggio [Ex. 7], and
can bounce that around in whole-steps.”
Jude Gold is GP’s Los Angeles editor and
Director of GIT, the Guitar Program at Musicians
Institute. Comments? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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